Conventions aren’t icing and confetti sprinkles we apply to a piece of writing as a final flourish. Conventions are baked into the cake! I learned this truth the hard way, of course, as a new teacher. My fall from innocence to experience story goes like this: It was early in my career and I moved into my new classroom to find that I had no wall place to put my beloved “linear writing process” chart… you know, the one that goes like this:
Oh, how I loved having students move their names along the chart, showing where they were “at” in this linear writing process. I looked down at my adorable homemade chart, sighed, and recycled. Later that year, I discovered how ditching that chart was one of the best things I could have done for the writers in the room!
Without the chart, student writers took different, more personalized paths, doing the misnamed “steps” of the writing process in a wonderfully zig zagging manner. I discovered that this free-range writing actually improved their knack for elaborating, editing, using conventions purposefully, and so on. Conversely, I realized that when I had saved revising and editing work to the very end, most students weren’t all that fruitful.They weren’t succeeding because I was asking them to do something artificial. This moment of clarity helped me to recognize that the writing process actually looks a lot more like this:
So, you might ask, does this mean that we teach the writing process in an ad-hoc manner? Absolutely not. We still lean on a handful of steps, and demonstrate and practice in whole group, small group, and one-on-one settings. What’s different, though, is that we don’t teach the steps and then move on, like a train going from station to station. Instead, we model, circle back, reteach throughout a unit, encouraging students to “try this out” in lots of pieces—lots of days and in just as many ways.
Therefore, when it comes to teaching grammar, my goal is for students to choose to make a habit of using taught conventions, whenever the need arises. It’s a habit, it’s a choice, not a specific moment in time in the process of writing. With this approach, and over time and (with lots of practice and scaffolding), students learn to transfer what they know about words and grammar in the midst of writing all across a unit.
How will I prioritize conventional spelling and grammar across a unit when I barely have time to fit in all the rest?
It’s a fair question. It took me a while to tinker with things so that students didn’t get overly caught up in “correct” as they also experimented with a new genre. As shown below, I came up with my own Goldilocks version of a “just right” balance. It never looks exactly the same grade to grade, class to class, or unit to unit. But, I have found a happy middle ground in how I mold a unit of study. It keeps the majority of the emphasis on the actual writing- without sacrificing spelling and grammar completely. Take a peek at this example and think about what seems interesting, possible, and “tweak-able” for you. Once you complete a week of immersion the rest of the unit looks like this:
In the last blog in this series, we will explore how to cultivate greater independence in using identified, taught, and supported conventions. I look forward to sharing some of the tools, texts, and collaboration that bring a social spirit to spelling and grammar- and help us work toward this meaningful goal.